BWW Reviews: LA BOHEME, Arcola Theatre, August 7 2015

Londoners have been spoiled in recent years with boutique operas popping up in the most unlikely places, so it's easy to forget that for many people opera is something that other people do: it's the dinner jackets, the ticket prices and all those foreign languages that put them off (despite the Go Compare man's best efforts). There's plenty of room then for companies to do what Opera24 do very well at The Arcola's Grimeborn Festival - "...reconceive large-scale operas in intimate settings with small casts, new translations and chamber orchestrations".

And there are few operas more suited to this approach than Puccini's La Bohème, the tale of the four struggling Parisian artists and the girl who flits in, and then out, of their lives. Having recently seen the Royal Opera House's 40-year-old very traditional production, I was intrigued to er... go compare the two experiences - and there are differences, but, as I expected, the immediacy of The Arcola trumps the majesty of the ROH, the hit being all the stronger for its proximity.

The star of this Bohème is the small orchestra jammed into a tiny space in the heat of August giving us all the magnificence of one of opera's most celebrated compositions. Under conductor Nick Fletcher, a seven-piece band of strings and woodwind play John Jansson's arrangements of Puccini's soaring, swooping tunes, the music filling the larger of the Arcola's spaces without ever overpowering the singers nor the emotions (indeed, more than once in the show, I felt the prick of tears and realised it was the music driving my sorrow and anger as much as the singing or the libretto). The band alone is worth the ticket price - and more.

Armed with a very contemporary translation by John Farndon (we're in Dalston and we're railing against austerity and the government's treatment of "illegals") the acting is excellent - we believe in these people, even as we wonder about (and wonder at) their chosen mode of communication! Heather Caddick is marvellous as Mimi, her shyness convincing, her joy in not just falling in love but being part of a group of friends infectious and her lovely singing a delight. She anchors the emotional centre of the story successfully (even though we know what Puccini does to his heroines). Danae Eleni has a lot of fun with sassy, sexy Musetta, the tart with a heart who teases for pleasure and pleases for cash. The boys, if truth be told, vary in the quality of their singing, which was not always absolutely pin sharp, meaning that I missed some of the references and jokes - of which there were plenty! A minor quibble and not everyone has my ageing ears!

As usual, I finish one of these fringe opera reviews with a plea to anyone who is a fan of musical theatre but unsure about opera to give it a go. Okay, it's not quite as accessible as The Sound of Music, but it's not far off and, as is the case with a musical, if absolutely everything isn't as perfect as it could be, let's revel in the elements that hit the bullseye and give thanks that companies embrace the sheer difficulty of putting something like this on at all.

There's more throughout August at The Arcola and more to come too from Opera24 - cllick the links above for more info.

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From This Author Gary Naylor

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